A new generation of riders is getting ready to take the reins of steeplechasing in Maryland. Most of these newcomers -- and their mounts -- are only pint-sized right now, but it will not be long until they move up.
Recently, a dozen children, as young as 8 and and old as 17, and their ponies showed up at Charlie Jr. and Barbara Conaway's farm to practice race-riding in preparation for the April 3 Elkridge-Harford Hunt Point-to-Point races at Atlanta Hall Farm in Monkton -- the first of Maryland's six steeplechase meets this season. (The Howard County-Iron Bridge Race Meet was postponed and then canceled.)
The mounted session was a follow-up to an unmounted session presented by the Conaways the previous week when bad footing canceled practice race-riding.
During the two sessions, the children and their ponies learned how to follow the race starter's orders, how to gallop under control, how to pull up after a race and how to be picked up by an outrider. The young riders also learned about the safety aspects of pony racing.
"That is the most important thing," said Charlie Conaway Jr. "Especially for parents -- to put their minds at ease.
"Safety is of the utmost importance. And one of the greatest aspects of safety is having a pony that is suitable for the rider.
"Speed is not important when a kid is first starting to ride in pony races. Don't put a kid up on a pony that he can't handle. Don't go out and buy a fancy race pony. A nice, fat little hunter pony will do just fine. You want your kid on a pony that is controllable.
"For the first few races, the rider and the pony should just feel comfortable going through the motions. The kids love just getting out there on the course with their ponies in the company of other ponies and kids."
Conaway warns against new gimmicks on race day.
"Don't use any new piece of tack or any new tactics on race day. Go with what is familiar and what the rider and pony are used to and comfortable with. Ride with the tack you are used to and ride the way you are used to. This is not the time to shorten your stirrups or start riding with a different bit."
Conaway speaks from experience because his children -- Charlie III, Kelly and Jenny -- compete in the pony and junior horse races at the Maryland steeplechases. Last year, Kelly won the Governor's Cup award for her outstanding record during the steeplechase season.
Conaway explained how to use an overgirth (to keep the saddle from slipping), how to put a knot in the reins (to keep them from slipping through your fingers and getting lost), and how to get help if your pony won't stop (yell "pony rider" and an outrider will help pull you up).
During the unmounted session, the children also viewed videotapes of last year's Howard-Iron Bridge pony and junior horse races.
"When you are at the races, the process will be exactly as you are seeing it on the tape," Conaway told the 28 pony riders and parents at the unmounted session.
"This will give you a feel for how the course looks and how it rides. When you get to the course, I will walk it with you, so you will know exactly where you have to go and what you have to do."
The day of the mounted session, the riders followed Charlie III and Kelly in a single file at a walk, trot and canter around the Conaways' galloping path.
"They are supposed to follow the leader and keep their distance," Conaway said. "This gives me a good idea of who is riding with control and who isn't."
When all the riders passed the control test, they paired up for practice starts with Conaway waving a red sock after the riders were in position facing him.
"Always listen to the race starter," he said. "He'll tell you what to do. Now make a nice big circle, face me and wait for the flag to go down."
Two by two, the ponies streaked by. Their riders, thinking about control and straightness, crouched low over the ponies' necks.
"This is just practice," Conaway reminded them. "Today it doesn't matter who wins or loses."
Shannon Daugherty of Marriottsville will make her second race start ever at Elkridge. Shannon has a new pony this year and thinks a bet on Midas Touch may turn out to be golden.
"She loves to race," Shannon said of the 7-year-old palomino paint mare lent to her by Kevin Bowie. "And she has speed. That helps."
Midas Touch is a former Western pleasure horse who took immediately to an English saddle and eventing. Shannon, an eighth-grader at Glenwood Middle School, and "Sunny" placed second in their first event together last summer.
Shannon says that the best thing about Sunny is that she listens and she "moves on at the start really well." Shannon knows that she will have competition, including from Kelly Conaway.
"If we can get by Kelly, I know we won't have a problem. That is going to be an ordeal, but I have faith."